Sunday, December 17, 2006

"My Weakness" (1933)

There’s a lot of amusement to be had in watching David Butler’s My Weakness (1933), little of which has to do with its Pygmalion inspired plot about a spoiled rich nephew (Lew Ayres) who, in order to get his allowance back from his uncle, must turn Irish maid Lillian Harvey into a socialite fit for a millionaire. The plot might be pure bunk, but the dialogue is as sharp as can be delivered without drawing blood from our ears: “Be interested in stamps and he’ll forget that he hates women,” “What this country needs is less permanent waves and more permanent wives,” “We’ll get a bunch of carrots and make a night of it!” and best of all, “With all these tips I might be a bigamist by morning.” A stop-motion animation number, “Be Careful,” where amongst others a pack of dogs and Rodin’s “The Thinker” sing about the dangers of falling in love, also stands out in the film.

Most pleasurable of all, however, is Charles Butterworth, one of the funniest character actors in all of 1930s cinema, but also one of the least recognized. Butterworth is the chosen victim whom Lillian Harvey must try to seduce and marry. He also happens to be as asexual as a carrot chomping stamp collector can be and still be an executive in the brassiere business—in fact he most definitely lowers the prerequisite, if ever such a man existed! His ever oblivious self, confused about the sexes and charmingly inept to the point of being a genius, Butterworth’s finest moment is while being seduced by Lillian Harvey. As she sings to him, “Gather Lip Rouge While You May,” Butterworth sounds off about how a trombone is better looking than a derby and cane, and how a fiddle would come in handy during a flood. Exasperated at his unresponsiveness, Harvey kisses him and begins panting incessantly. Butterworth, in a gesture that makes the entire film worthwhile, holds out his glasses for her to fog up before cleaning them on his shirtsleeve.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Chandu the Magician" (1932)

“Yes, for years my brother has been trying to perfect a death ray that could destroy cities,” Chandu the Magician (Edmund Lowe) says to his Yogi mentor before setting off to save the world from evil. The brother, Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) mind you, isn’t the villain of Chandu the Magician (1932), he just happens to be creating a death ray the way some people bake brownies, or others make model airplanes. The real villain is Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who kidnaps Regent and his death ray in attempt to rule the world, return it to primitivism, and destroy everything around him.

There’s a charming directness to the plot of Chandu the Magician, an earnestness that is not betrayed by any pretensions by its co-directors William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. It’s as if the plot is merely a vehicle for action and adventure spectacle and all the exoticization of Egypt as one can imagine. And in between bouts of cliché and inanity, I found myself entranced by the film’s sideshow-like sense of spectacle. There’s a real effort to “wow” audiences, and while Tony Scott may be able to afford explosions a hundred times the size of anything in Chandu, I much prefer seeing Edmund Lowe firewalk through a humble, yet effective, blaze of burning coals. It’s not the “quaintness” of older special effects that make them so charming, but that because of the limited economic means of B-movies and the primitive nature of technology (as compared to now) there seems to have been more emphasis on the actual image and the physical environment of the set. A sense of craftsmanship, if you will, that seems lost in today’s overabundance, and over exaggerated sense, of the fantastic.